Sliding Doors

This may not be the post that any of us were expecting to mark my return to the blog after a 3 month absence.  I’ve had lots of ideas for posts, and many experiences that were probably more worthy of recording, but it was this afternoon that has finally made me return to the keyboard.  Some of this missing summer may later be immortalised in GofaDM or my future hagiographers may view summer 2018 in a similar light to Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance in 1926.  Then again, this post may be viewed as an odd postscript to my blogging career before darkness once more descends on this record of my life – only time will tell…

I have been feeling a trifle delicate today after having enjoyed myself to an immoderate degree yesterday – of which, perhaps, more later. So, following a rather extensive brunch catching up with a friend, I acquired some necessary victuals: aduki beans, rogan josh curry paste and a handful of bananas.  Should I choose to combine these in a single dish, I feel confident of making culinary history though perhaps not anything that would pass as edible.  After this pre-planned excursion, I would not have blamed myself (though others may) had I chosen to camp out under my duvet with some of the trashier charms of Netflix for company for the rest of the day.

As it transpires, I am a better man than this and so – pausing only to re-inflate my front tyre – I set off on my bicycle to the Highfield campus of the University of Southampton.  This weekend, that institution has been holding open days for the enlightenment of potential (or possibly actual) future students – or should I call them customers in this age where the market is in despotic command?  I could theoretically pass myself off as a possible mature student (in physical age at least) but I was noticeably older than most of either the proto-students or their parents and or guardians.  (By-the-by, who would want to be a mere ‘parent’ when the much more exciting title of ‘guardian’ is on offer?).  Luckily, my presence on campus went entirely unchallenged.

My reason for going to the campus was on the off-chance of seeing some musical friends performing as part of the weekend’s rich calendar of events.  With my not infrequent gift for timing, I arrived just in time to hear the dying notes of the final musical performance of the weekend.  However, from this apparent failure was salvaged a crumb of hope in terms of the suggestion that the friend of a friend – a student of acoustics – was manning an exhibit relating to 3D sound in a car and was bored and might welcome visitors.  As I make it a principle of life to leave no straw unclutched, I wandered round the Hartley Library to a black Toyota estate and three young acoustics tyros.  What a splendid decision this turned out to be!

On entering the car, I found myself in an environment not unlike a sauna and facing a small box – roughly the size of a shoe box – covering the passenger’s sunshade, with six small speakers of various shapes facing me.  Not the most pre-possessing of objects but it was a thing of marvels (and has probably led to some useful weight-loss).  From these six speakers – all visibly in front of me – emerged the most incredible, immersive surround sound experience.  It knocked the highest spec, 5.1 hifi home cinema sound system into a cocked-hat – and without any trailing wires!  Sound was clearly coming from behind me – so much so that it was impossible not to look round.  In a piece of nostaglia, one of the pieces of music chosen was the theme from the Money Programme of my youth.  I also heard tell of a truly amazing cinema at Bower and Wilkins with probably the greatest sound system in the world which needs a medium-sized room full of amplifiers just to make it work.  Now, how can a blag myself a visit…?

Way back in 1990, I had the opportunity to do a PhD in acoustics at MIRA (the Motor Industry Research Association) and I found myself wondering about the path my life might have taken had I taken up that option rather than joining the electricity industry.  Perhaps somewhere in the multi-verse, another me is a giant in the field of acoustics – though, in those days, the technology I was viewing probably wasn’t even a distant dream and I would probably have spend more time trying to reduce rattle and hum in 90s hatchbacks.  Less exciting perhaps but still a laudable aim which may have reduced later U2-based suffering…

However, this was only one of the technical, acoustic marvels the afternoon held.  The lads at the car pointed me to an even more amazing demonstration in a nearby building.  This used twenty nine speakers in a unit that would sit at the top of a car’s windscreen and would allow the driver and passenger to listen to entirely different music (or radio or podcasts) without disturbing each other – another cause of vehicular arguments could end within my lifetime!  It isn’t quite perfect, there was a little bit of bleed-through – but it was astoundingly close.  Moving a mere 18 inches delivered a total different sonic feed: almost like magic.  The system also offered an even more immersive 3D soundscape than the six speaker system in the Toyota.  The future of acoustics and sound reproduction looks to be incredibly exciting and in very good hands!

As interesting as the sound system was its manufacture using a mixture of 3D printing and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling was as exciting.  The latter has moved on massively since the later 1980s when one of my first jobs was writing an algorithm to schedule jobs on a Makino MC65 milling machine.  The student demonstrating his amazing speaker system had a little cubic bauble which had been milled from a block of aluminium that very day using a 5-axis milling machine.  It had been milled out in an almost fractal geometric design and it was rather beautiful and sparkled in the light.  I did, mostly in jest, consider attempting to over-power the poor lad and leg it with his jewel-like piece of engineering – but managed to restrain my more larcenous tendencies.

It was a truly eye-opening afternoon seeing what a mere handful of young people in one department were achieving.  It was also fascinating hearing them talk about the co-operation with other universities and organisations and the really open-minded problem-solving between departments within Southampton University which was making their work possible.  It really brought home to me the amazing work our universities are capable of and how interconnected modern scientific, technological and engineering development has to be.  It was one of the best examples of a university engaging with the public (viz me) I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weekend wasn’t entirely intended to work in this way – but it was a first class demonstration of how a university can enthuse the public with how they are spending our money.  The work these young people were engaged in – on, I suspect, fairly minimal salaries – will be the foundation of the technological marvels that we will take for granted in a few years time.  We will also probably credit the Apple’s of tomorrow for the miracles, rather than the young people of today and the current public investment in their work.

The University of Southampton (along with many others) has not had entirely good press of late – but it seems important to remember that along with their issues they do important and fascinating work.  I also feel that there are a lot more opportunities for deeper engagement with the public than they are currently using – though, I will admit that this afternoon could have been tailor-made to charm me, given my slightly strange past, and might not have had universal appeal…

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